We’ve all been there: in the grocery store, at the mall, walking the shelves of the library, when, out of nowhere it hits you like a sniper bullet to the chest. You have to cough. There might not even be enough time to be conscious that it’s about to happen. Yes, your chest just went there! You’re just about to be publicly humiliated in one way or another.
There’s no time to make a decision! It’s time to duck, slide, glide, or shove your face into your elbow to muffle the 747 engines that just revved up. I’ve hidden behind produce islands to tie my shoe, ducked around shelves, put up newspapers, and slipped into empty rooms.
Your surrounding audience is going to perceive you one or more of the following ways:
as someone about to die on the spot
as someone suffering from the swine flu
as someone who should have stopped smoking 512,478 packs of cigarettes ago
as someone who is going to infect them with whatever made you cough like that
In my 31 years and counting, I’ve only been with one person who was not surprised by my spasm because he had a childhood friend with CF and recognized the cough. For everyone else, they are concerned. My wife will sometimes tell me on the way home what peoples’ reactions were. Some are pretty funny. Others are offensive. Just knowing that I feel this way about my coughing makes her sad, but it’s something that goes with the territory. Unless someone knows about my CF, here are the questions/comments I get:
Do you have a cold?
Do you have the flu?
How long have you had that cold? You were coughing like that [insert a time weeks or months back].
Are you contagious?
Oh, man! I can’t get rid of this cough, either. I feel like I can barely breathe.
It’s only the last one who almost gets their head taken off – they definitely get the most scathing comment back for inserting their lackluster coughing life into mine because they were witness to my cough. I try to be nice. I try to be graceful. I fail miserably almost 98% of the time.
It’s something our friends and family (eventually) get used to. Those with greater skill or longer periods of reference can even begin to tell when the cough is something to be concerned with, which takes considerable practice considering how often it happens when a CFer is healthy. Over time, people learn to talk over the coughing or just wait until it subsides. I’m excellent at reading lips while getting every 3rd word audibly if you’re talking to me during an episode. I can also keep from choking when my mouth is full of food when it kicks off – don’t worry.
Here’s my worst experience, so be prepared to share in the comments or link back here with your story on your site.
I was on a 2-hour flight from Houston to Tampa in the window seat next to a big business traveler. It was a connecting flight, so I didn’t have time to run to the restroom to hide in a stall and get a good cough out of my system. Plus, with the run, I was feeling pretty tight in the chest by the time I was seated, let alone taking off.
Normally, I take the isle seats, but I wasn’t the one who booked my ticket (and don’t try to blame Beautiful, either). I was stuck. He kept falling asleep, but I couldn’t get around him to go to the lavatory and just make the people within a few seats wonder what is going on in there. I had no fewer than 3 spazzes on the flight because I couldn’t get up to do a proper airway clearance – I was barely stifling the urge to cough with these wimpy spazzes.
Off the plane and into the huge concourse in Tampa, I found myself about 6 feet behind him and his coworkers from another section of the flight. I heard him say, “I hope the guy next to me didn’t give me something. He was dying coughing up his lungs the whole flight.”
The new and improved Fatboy 3.0 would have quick-stepped to slide in behind him to give him something to think about for a few years, but I slipped into the men’s room into a stall to get a real cough in before being greeted by Beautiful.
Planning ahead can avoid these situations… for a time. There is no way to avoid it over prolonged periods, so if you’re planning on starting a new relationship with someone that you want it to go somewhere with, don’t plan on trying to hide it forever. It won’t work. Other than that, there is no reason to unnecessarily concern others with a cough that didn’t need to happen, so I do try to get some airway clearance in relative privacy.
We have a week-long family vacation that includes a family member by marriage who doesn’t know about my CF yet. We still have to work out how/when to provide that information to avoid the “stranger freak-out” that occurs when a stranger witnesses a Fatboy spaz. I wrote an essay on that – still waiting for Newsweek to get back with me on publishing it. I do have another magazine in line, if that falls through for you to enjoy the topic on a deeper level.